I grew up in a very affluent community outside of Manhattan, attending private school with the filthy rich. My family was not rich. We were comfortable. When I started high school, I was a small, awkward kid with the looks and maturity of a 12 year old. I wasn’t unhappy when I got there. Merely awkward. I struggled to fit in, not brainy and disciplined enough to keep up with any in the honors classes I took, and I generally floundered my way through the first two years of high school. When I got ejected from the honors track, most of the girls in the regular track had no idea who I was. I hung on the fringes of a group or two, never feeling like I was truly a part of any of them. I had become totally miserable.
I got a job in my junior year, working at an ice cream shop. I made some friends there, though they weren’t girls from my school. They were, however, drinkers. Not “falling into the gutter” drinkers, but drinkers nonetheless, and once I got a taste of that world, I was hooked. I found that a little alcohol went a long way in alleviating my social hang-ups, as it does for everyone. I also found that the bars my work friends hung out in were the same bars where my classmates hung out. And suddenly, senior year, people who had previously found me invisible were talking to me. I had arrived in some way that only I perceived. And the only way to stay there was to keep drinking.
I drank almost every weekend. I preferred vodka….straight form the bottle with a straw. I was still a small kid, and it hit me fast and hit me hard. I honestly can’t even remember now how I got that vodka. Probably older friends….siblings of friends. I drank as much as I could as quickly as I could. I hated the taste. I needed the effects.
I didn’t black out. I didn’t really get hungover. I never drove drunk. But I managed to land myself in the pediatric ward of the local hospital with severe alcohol poisoning. Later that same year I did it again. By this time I was a college freshman, hours from home, again struggling to fit in. Instead, I got kicked out.
Not six months after graduating from high school, I found myself in rehab….before it was cool to be in rehab. I was an alcoholic in danger of drinking herself to death at seventeen.
At a 28 day rehab program in Manhattan, I celebrated Thanksgiving and my 18th birthday. I was the youngest person there, and certainly the most naïve. I was terrified for my life, and terrified of where I was, but I was relieved to find myself surrounded by people who knew how I felt. People who understood that I couldn’t stop drinking, no matter how hard I tried or how bad it got. Following that month, I spent seven weeks in outpatient treatment in Manhattan, and was then admitted to a recovery house in upstate NY, where I lived in with 14 other women trying to save themselves.
The decision to travel 150 miles from home, alone, as a frightened eighteen year old, was the first decision I made as an adult. It wasn’t an easy one, but I knew it was the right one, and it broke my parents’ hearts. I was emancipated and placed on public assistance so my treatment could be paid for by the government. My family very likely could have paid for the cost, but this was something I needed to do for myself.
To say I experienced culture shock was an understatement. I spent the next year living essentially in the ghetto, visiting Social Services, receiving Medicaid and food stamps, accepting vouchers from the Salvation Army, all so I could focus on nothing but getting better.
I learned to live on the $18.50 a week I was allotted after my treatment costs and living expenses had been paid. It would have been difficult to find a situation farther from what I had known, but it was the best thing I have ever done for myself. I cut up my Social Services ID as soon as I was discharged from treatment, determined not to use funds anymore because I knew others needed them more. I went back to college, living in a dorm like every other 19 year old. I finished college 3 ½ years later, still sober.
I now have a Masters degree and live in a small but comfortable house with my husband and two daughters. This past November marked 24 years sober for me. These years haven’t always been easy, but accepting public assistance allowed me to spend my time during that critical year working on nothing but getting myself better and learning how to handle life, whatever I may bring. That time was truly a gift. I have no regrets and no shame. I am proud of the work I did that year, and for finding the humility to accept help in any form it took.
About the guest blogger: Marianne began blogging a number of years go, partly to chronicle the premature births of both of her daughters. She promises to get back to blogging…someday. Meanwhile you can follow her on twitter@emmay8.